Terrorism: Goals vs. Methods

I rcently read what I thought was an insightful comment on terrorism, although I have unfortunately now forgotten where. The comment was that terrorists want to be judged on their statements, but they are in fact judged on their actions.

For example, Osama bin Laden has stated that his goals are to force U.S. forces to leave Islamic lands, in which he includes Israel. His actions have been to attack the U.S., killing innocents. People in the U.S. do not conclude, based on his statements, that he is a rational actor using asymetrical warfare techniques to make us for his lack of force. Instead, they conclude, based on his actions, that he is an insane mass murderer who wants to kill as many Americans as possible. The result is that people ignore bin Laden’s actual goals. This quite likely came as a surprise to him, to the extent that he has recognized it at all.

Now, I personally think that bin Laden is an evil mass murderer, but I don’t think that he is insane. I think his goals are what he says they are: to reestablish the Islamic caliphate, free from foreign control. This may seem quixotic, but after all he did succeed in Afghanistan–at least he succeeded until 9/11 provoked an invastion. Assuming that he is not insane, he has no reason to hide his goals. I think it is quite probably that, in the extremely unlikely case that he were successful, he would cease his attacks on the U.S. He would no longer have any reason to attack.

The original comment regarded terrorists. But I think it’s important to extend this in considering how other people regard us. We have caused the deaths of far more Iraqis than the number of Americans who died in 9/11. U.S. forces have regularly killed innocent Iraqis at checkpoints and by dropping bombs. Unlike bin Laden, these are accidents which occurred despite our good intentions. But the people in Iraq judge us by our actions, not our statements. What they see is that we are killing people. No wonder most of them regard the U.S. as an occupation force, and that they want us to leave.

A similar trap occurs in Israel. The Israeli forces try hard to avoid hurting innocent bystanders. But they do get hurt. In the second Intifadah many more Palestinians died than Israelis.

To be clear, I do think that motives matter. There is a huge difference between the Palestinian terrorists who target innocent people and the Israeli forces who try to avoid harming innocent people. There is a huge difference between evil people like bin Laden or Saddam Hussein and the U.S. forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when judging only by actions, not by statements or intentions, the difference appears much smaller.

It is a cliche to observe that it is not enough to mean well; you must also appear to mean well. For the U.S. to succeed in preventing terrorism, we must remember and apply that lesson. And we must also remember that terrorists may have crazy goals and crazy methods, but they aren’t irrational. If they were irrational, they would be much less dangerous.


  1. ben said,

    August 22, 2007 @ 11:29 am

    Good essay.

    I rcently read what I thought was an insightful comment on terrorism, although I have unfortunately now forgotten where

    Bruce Schneier wrote about this theory in Wired and his blog: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2007/07/correspondent_i.html

    He cites “a paper by Max Abrahms in International Security. “Why Terrorism Does Not Work”” and Correspondent Inference Theory.

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    August 22, 2007 @ 11:23 pm

    Thanks, that must have been where I saw it.

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